Why are marble sculptures so important in Italy?

One of the oldest art forms, marble sculptures are three-dimensional figures which have grown in skill and complexity since early humans first started fashioning them from stone. 

The Vatican Museums and galleries are bursting with astonishing marble sculptures. It has been one of the most popular materials in sculpturing since the invention of metal tools during the bronze age over 9000 years ago. Many great artists throughout history have used marble to deliver some of the greatest and most infamous sculptures in the world. But why has it been so popular What makes this material better than others? And why has its significance prevailed throughout history? 

Characteristics of Marble

Marble is a metamorphic rock derived from limestone, with many unique properties that make it a perfect material. Not just for sculpture, but for architecture, paint, and chemical uses. There are three marble types with the pure white Carrara marble being the main one used for sculptures. Marble is formed when limestone is transformed by heat and pressure after being overlain by other materials. This is what makes marble relatively easy to work with, as it can be soft when first quarried allowing artists to mould, refine and polish their sculptures before they harden. This happens over a long term period, as gradually, the material becomes extremely hard and dense and turns to an unbreakable stone structure left in the form the artist has created permanently. The material forms a waxy, shiny look if polished, giving the stone an almost soft human appearance. This is another appeal for artists, as marble is the only stone that has this soft translucency that gives it a kind of realism, creating a depth beyond its surface. This gives a perfect finish for the artist’s human figures, as the soft delicate looks of the form can contrast beautifully with the hard marble the artist is left with. On a more practical note, marble is also extremely durable, being able to withstand the test of time and have next to no changes when exposed to the weather. It’s so durable in fact that scholars often have trouble trying to date marble sculptures as any changes to the original are not always visible to the naked eye. 

Italy’s History with Marble

Nowadays when we think of marble, we often also think of Greek antiquity, the Italian Renaissance and classicism, as can be evidenced in the many ancient Roman sculptures that have been excavated from that time. Their marble structures included buildings, portraits and copies of Greek sculptures that were originally bronze. Interestingly, the term marble was not understood in the same way we see it now. To the Romans ‘marble’ was used to describe all polished stones, including varieties as geologically disparate as alabaster, granite or porphyry which have a broad and vibrant colour palette. So, to be clear, going forward this article is specifically talking about Carrara marble (i.e. white marble). Marble portraits began in the Republican era and were of powerful people, such as political leaders and historians, as a way to remind people who was in power. These statues were usually only of the top half of the person, from their chest upwards, examples of which can be seen in the Vatican Museums and the Borghese Gallery in Rome. During the Imperial Roman period, Roman artists became increasingly inspired by the Greeks, and they in turn inspired Renaissance artists. They started doing marble replicas of Greek bronze statues which outlasted the bronze originals. Artists like Michelangelo and Donatello continued this tradition, mastering the marble form and creating masterpieces which are now known around the world, like the statue of David and Lo Zuccone. A famous description of marble was uttered by Michelangelo in this period, stating how his role was slowly to chip away the form that was trapped inside the block. From looking at this history we can see how marble has made such a lasting impression on Italy, a history which we owe many beautiful marble structures to.

The most Iconic Marble Sculptures in the Vatican City

  • Pietà by Michelangelo

    Michelangelo has dozens of iconic sculptures spread across Italy. But one of the most beloved within the Vatican City at St. Peter’s Basilica is the Pieta. the artwork was commissioned by the Jean de Bilheresa and was used as the cardinal’s monument during his funeral. The piece portraying Jesus in his mother Mary’s lap after the crucifixion. It has gone down in history as the only sculpture Michelangelo ever signed.

  • Laocoon and His Sons by Rhodes sculptors Hagesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus.

    The marble replica to a Greek bronze piece is sure to take anyone’s breath away. Depicting three figures, the centre being the Trojan priest Laocoön, surrounded by his two sons, Antiphantes and Thymbraeus, the sculpture depicts all three of them being attacked by serpents. Credited for its immense detail and mid-action shot, the statue accurately expresses the emotion of pain and panic as the figures hurriedly try to free themselves. Visit the Museo Pio-Clementino within the Vatican Museums to see this marvellous artwork in person. 

  • Belvedere Torso

    Despite this piece only being a small fragment of the human form, it remains significant. Portraying only a male torso, with textured edges ending the form abruptly. It represents how the ancient world moulded the style of pre-modern art. The marble artwork dates back to the 1st century BC and is understood to be merely a copy of the original. At the bottom it is prominently signed “Apollonios, son of Nestor, Athenian”, who is otherwise unmentioned in ancient literature. 

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